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Interview with Lekan Balogun

  • This Interview was published in National Mirror in April.

My Friends Think I Must Be Crazy To Live As A Dramatist-Lekan Balogun

Like his contemporary, Wole Oguntokun, Lekan Balogun belongs to a new generation of Nigerian playwrights, prolific and focused, whose contributions to the growth of the Nigerian theatre is considered by critics to be invaluable and worthy of commendation. In this interview with UZEZI EKERE, he talks about his career as a dramatist and what lies ahead. Excerpts:

How long have you been involved with the theatre?
We are talking about fourteen years, and its been one long and adventurous one.

What has the journey been like for fourteen years?
It’s been very enormous really, because quite a lot of people do not know that I didn’t start as a playwright. They know me as a writer but I actually started as a stage actor, after a while I got into research, which I still do, and it is in the course of my research that my flair for writing sprout into the open.

Did you encounter challenges down the journey?
Basically, in all works I’ve done, except a few, I have had to start to do most of my work from zero level without having any support whatsoever, But because I have a very strong passion for what I am doing and the arts, I have never considered any work I want to do to be difficult or impossible. And as fate would have it, I’ve always been able to come across support of some sort. For someone like me to have been able to get to a level that is now well recognized, I think I can give myself a pass mark.

You said you started with acting?
Yes. I started when I was a student of English at the Federal College of Education, Abeokuta. That was in 19993. when I finished in 1996, I joined the then Centre of Cultural Studies, which is now Creative Arts Department, University of Lagos. I joined as an associated member, under the late Professor Bode Osonye. I was a member of his troupe, and I also belonged to other theatre organizations like that. It was actually at the centre that I was given my professional training because I had the opportunity of working with some of the best crop of actors and actresses in the field, dancers, singers and several of them. People like Tunji Sotimirin, Norbert Young, Ernest Obi, Jude Orhara and several other guys that are now outside the shores of the country. And for quite a lot of people that passed through Bode Osonye,, it was a total theatre thing, like you are an actor or singer, writer or others. For me being the most prominent of his students that took after him in terms of writing, I have been able to record quite a number of successes. I won NANTAP award, then Festival of Nigeria Plays 2002, with my entry ‘Moremi’. Even before then, some of my plays have been given recognition like in 2002 when I was adjudged the most promising playwright in University of Lagos. After that I have won other awards. ‘Oya’ was selected by the jury for the Univeristy of Jos Festival of Theatre in 2006. the same thing with ‘Beyond the Sunset’, the play was eventually used as the University of Lagos convocation play in 2006, and as a result of that play, it was taken again by the National Troupe to the National Theatre, a form of collaboration. There’s been a lot.

Is there any particular role you played that appeared the toughest for you?
Yes. I remember sometime in 1999 that I played ‘Odewale’ in The Gods Are Not to Blame’. Actually it was the first time in my acting career that I was given the lead role and it was very challenging. It took quite a lot from me. But I was able to record an outstanding performance, that a couple of people who came to see the play even mounted the stage after the performance to give me money. Very amazing. I have done several like that all over.

How many plays have you written?
I started writing ten years ago and today I have written close to thirty plays, and I have had the privilege of having close to 18 of them performed on the stage. In Lagos, Ibadan, Jos, Abuja, even outside Nigeria and I have five published works. The sixth will be coming out every soon.

What work play are you working on at present?
I’m working on the ‘Olive Branch’. It’s a play I’ve been working on in the last four years. It has transformed and has gone through several stages. I’m trying to look at using drama to preach peace. I’m someone that is grounded in the Yoruba culture. I try to bring certain traditional functions to fit into the concept of my play and that’s what we are working on and by June it should go on stage.

Which of your plays was the very first to be performed on stage?
It was ‘Onikoye’. It was performed at the National Theatre in 1999.

Did you write and direct the play?
No. I wrote it and I played one of the lead roles. I played the chanter. It’s something a lot of people don’t know I can do. Of all the plays hat I’ve written, I’ve only directed about two or three. I always giving them out to a director, trying to see their interpretation, whether it will be different from mine, or very close to it, or just what I have in mind. I so much love the idea of watching people give their own interpretation of what they think I have mind. It’s exciting to me, to see other people do it.

But you are directing the Olive Branch play?
Yes. I will work on that myself. I’m going to involve a kind of technique that people don’t do in our theatre and I wouldn’t want to say much about it. When you see the play, you will understand what I mean.

Which of your plays would you consider the most popular?
I think ‘Moremi’ is actually the most popular for the fact that it has won awards and has done the highest level of performance for the festival of Nigeria Plays organised by NANTAP and then having it done again by the students of University of Lagos. The one I think that has come that close is ‘OYA’ that has enjoyed enormous success in terms of cast strength and performance.

People actually associate your name with ‘OYA’. Like someone trying to name good plays will say ‘like Oya by Lekan Balogun’.
Yes. That’s because of the success the play has recorded. To quite a number of people, ‘Oya’ seem to kind of cloud the kind of image that ‘Moremi’ has. The play was enormous, and it has everything that you can call an African play, dialogue, poetry, dance, chant, music, everything. Coupled with the storyline, it was fantastic. For the first time, you see an African playwright bringing gods to the level of human beings who can have emotions, and gods too can fall in love and be jealous. It’s the concept that made it so popular. People still send messages that they want me to stage it again. But it’s extremely expensive to put up.

Does that mean you won’t stage it again?
I definitely will. Maybe one of these days, if somebody walks up to me with a million, a sort of sponsorship, I will do it.

Do you have your own theatre troupe?
Yes. But it’s not a troupe. It’s an organization called Renaissance Theatre Company. We have quite a number of talented young people. Some of them will be part of the ‘Olive Branch’ play, and you see most of them every time in my productions, apart from the fact that I always try to see new people in my plays. Anytime I give my work to a director, I tell them I want to new people. I’m not that kind of dramatist that will say I need established actors, because I believe there are a lot of vibrant young and talented artists out there that people need to see beyond the regular faces.

What impact generally do you think plays make in the society?
Quite a lot. From the ages people have always known that theatre, drama, plays are veritable tools for social commentary and very strong weapon for change, for education, for information, for re-orientation, anything. The enormous strength of plays as tools for social mobilization change can not be over emphasized.

Do you have a particular venue for your plays?
Everywhere. It depends on the particular mood and temperament of the play. I have done plays at the MUSON Centre, National Theatre, International Conference Centre Abuja, University school theatres. Everywhere. It also depends again on the demand of the plays. There’s a play I did ‘Birthday Present’. It was taken to the Refugees Camp in Ogun state to tell you that the plays go anywhere.

Can you judge the reaction of your audience to your plays?
I think that without actually blowing my trumpet, everyone of my plays has been accepted because I develop a style where I don’t play around with words. I try to make it very simple so that you can always go on with the dialogue, with the message and every time you realise that people seem to identify with it. for in stance, in 2004, I wrote ‘St Dominic’ to mark the 50th year of St Dominic Church in Nigeria, and it was greatly applauded, by both the parishioners and priest of the church to tell you the level at which my work is accepted. In fact, that play even got me a commissioned job. A Rotarian saw the play and I was commissioned to write a play on Rotary club because 2005 was the 100th year of Rotary club, and I wrote the play, but unfortunately, we didn’t get to stage it because the conditions they were giving was not that palatable to me, so I didn’t do it. maybe one day I will stage it as a charity show.

For someone who has been in the industry for fourteen years, you should be able to tell us the kind of challenges the industry is facing in Nigeria.
Very serious ones. You see, to put up a play is quite expensive except for quite a few number of people that have had the opportunity of having people sponsor them. And for some like Wole Oguntokun that, has been regular at MUSON centre, it’s once a while that we venture out. I think it’s because it has more to do with the way I write. I’m a kind of person that writes epic stories, and most times, I need quite a large cast to do them because of my pan africanist orientation. Even when I write some modern plays, you will always see my pan africanist in them and I try to bring it down to our environment and tell our own stories about ourselves. So basically, the challenges have to do with funding, then of course the home video environment. Quite a number of good stage hands have abandoned the stage for the big screen. Sometimes it’s ridiculous to rehearse a play for two months, and at the end of the day, if it’s not sponsored, you might go home with N5,000, compared to someone who will shoot a movie in one week and take good money home. But then, for some of us that are die hard theatre practitioners, we still want to go on. I produced a Yoruba movie recently. I wrote and produced it but I tell you, I didn’t find the fulfillment I get from stage.

How do you pay your huge cast then?
Luckily for me, most actors, the moment they read my scripts, they get the passion, they want to do it. I don’t know. I have tried asking myself why and haven’t gotten the answer yet. It’s something like that. Even when I tell the, I just want to do a reading that I’m still trying to find sponsors, they will tell me we should go on. And some of them make effort to get sponsors, and at the end they all enjoy themselves. Some even return the next day to ask if there’s any other work next. Like this recent audition, I wanted to do it a month from now, but some where like ‘let’s do it now, let have a feel of the script and from their response I think I want to do it now. I believe that I will get a lot of support for this play.

What help do you think the industry needs?
I think the industry needs a lot of support. Then the industry itself needs a lot of re-orientation for dramatists. Some dramatists think it is a kind of avenue to flaunt some very undesirable attitude. That’s why some people feel that people who go into this thing are riff raffs and the rest. I feel they need to be educated about what it’s all about. For example, if I don’t tell you, you can hardly know I’m a practitioner. I believe in whatever you do, you need some level of decency. And of course every other profession has its own hazard, but then we shouldn’t make ours look as if it is out of this world and beyond curable proportions. It’s just a matter of been wise in every thing we do and of course get the needed support; financial and moral, everything, to bring back the lost glory of the profession.

What amount of courage does someone need to remain in an industry that has such enormous challenges?
A kind of courage that makes them seem crazy to others, because of the faith they have in their work. A couple of my friends call me crazy. Even though things have not been that fine, I have been happy in it. it has to do with your level of commitment. That’s why you see that we have committed practitioners, and there those in it who just want to get some money into their pockets. Beyond that it’s pure commitment, and that’s what has kept me going.

So you do basically nothing but theatre?
That’s what I’m saying. Writing. I’ve written for the stage, television and radio. In the last ten years I’ve been able to pass through all media. And in those years I have picked four awards and eight recommendations or nominations, it says enough for me.

Do people really read plays?
People read plays of course. You will be amazed they do it a lot, else we won’t be publishing. I’ve published ‘Street Children’, ‘Tomorrow Today’, ‘The Rejected Stone’ and others. ‘Oya’ will be published soon.

Apart from drama, what else do you write?
I try my hands on poetry also. That is why you see that most of my lines are usually poetic. Then I do a lot of reading.

Where do you see yourself in another five years?
I see myself getting well established and moving beyond this level. I’ve been able to start some relationships with some foreign organizations. I want to believe in a year or two, I should be able to bring that to bear on my work and profession.